Christmas has a strange way of reminding us of our heroes. When we’re young, it’s an animated character on the screen that we admire; and when we’re older, our heroes take on life-size proportions.
It’s no coincidence that we celebrate three martyrs’ feasts during the Christmas Octave, including the Commemoration of St. Thomas Becket today. The martyrs are our Christian heroes; and like any hero, they inspire us to want to be like them.
The early Christians talked about being trained at the school of the martyrs. The school of the English martyrs is no mere metaphor. Visitors to Rome can find the school if they head to the magnificent Palazzo Farnese (designed, in part, by Michelangelo), turn onto the Via di Monserrato in the heart of Rome, and walk to a nondescript door. Behind that plain door lies the Venerable English College, the oldest English institution outside of England, dating back to 1362, when it was a hospice for pilgrims.
Since 1579, the Venerable English College has trained men for the priesthood, and from 1581 to 1679 it was the preeminent school of the English martyrs. Newly ordained English priests from this Reformation period were virtually guaranteed an early, violent death upon their return to England—44 of them met a martyr’s death, in the name of Christ. The College still exists to this day as an English seminary in Rome, and the bodies of those young priest-martyrs are buried in the chapel.
What does one learn at a school of martyrs? The art that fills the Chapel tribune reveals their secret. Tucked away from public viewing, the tribune is filled with gruesome images—scenes that juxtapose the horrible deaths of the young priestly martyrs and scenes from the life of Christ. It’s not for shock value, though. Seminarians would retreat to the tribune balcony to pray the Rosary. It could be said that the Rosary trained seminarians to be martyrs—not by any force of will, but by forming their minds. The mind that is conformed to the truth is strengthened by the virtues of Christ. These English priests became soldiers of Christ not by any physical agility, but by the long and patient training of their minds in the ways of truth. Contemplating the mysteries of the life of Christ—like the Incarnation—unites us with Christ. And the grace of Christ is more powerful than any soldier’s might.
That’s why seminarians study sacred truth so diligently. It surprises some people to learn that priests go through as much schooling as do most doctors—at least two years of graduate philosophy studies plus four years of graduate studies in theology. In the case of the English priest-martyrs, this education might have seemed wholly impractical, as the end of their studies would merely merit them death upon return to England.
But this is the wisdom of the martyrs, which is still true today. Assiduous study helped these martyrs to know Jesus Christ. Contemplating Him, they were able to love God more perfectly. That perfect love was heroic, and it’s the same kind of love each of us is called to possess. That’s why the martyrs are our heroes. They knew Christ, and knowing Him in divine friendship, they were able to live out perfectly Christian virtue, even unto death.
Image: Solomon, I Have Surpassed Thee, Venerable English College